Learning to write: Edith Wharton’s  Hudson River Bracketed 

Edith Wharton’s novels can be astonishingly revealing of human behaviour at the absolutely micro level – Wallace Stegner, whom I recommended here in a previous post must have learned something from her.

This was one I hadn’t read and so picked up in an Oxfam bookshop just before setting off for my reading and writing sabbatical. It’s a lovely thing when you have an author you trust enough to think ‘Something by you will be worth reading. It’s 500 pages but it will be worth carrying in my book suitcase.’

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And so it was.

Hudson River Bracketed is an architectural style, the style of a grand, largely unused, American house which plays a key part in the novel. It’s as if an English novel of the 1920s were to be called Oxford-Redbrick-Semi. Or Miners Two-bed and No Inside Loo. It’s partly a novel about the way that class, education and experience shape a life, and more than that, it is about how those things, plus reading, sex and money make or unmake an artist, and specifically a writer. And more specifically a male writer, from the west of America, born about 1900. Meet Vance (short for Advance) Weston:

By the time he was nineteen Vance Weston had graduated from the college of Euphoria, Illinois, where his parents had lived, had spent a week in Chicago, invented a new religion, and edited for a few months a college magazine called Getting There, to which he had contributed several love poems and a series of iconoclastic essays.

One of Vance’s difficulties is learning how to trust or judge what he experiences, and the opening sentence gives us a clue about that, pitching ‘a week in Chicago’ against ‘invented a new religion’ without blinking.  You decide, Edith Wharton seems to be silently saying, what kind of young man this is…and yes, he is naive, excite able, foolish, inexperienced and has big ideas and a even bigger feelings. Should we laugh at him? Yes, a bit. But not everyone invents a new religion by the time they are nineteen, and it might be worth sticking around to see what else this guy does.

It’s a long stick-around, standing by this young man as he learns some hard Edith Wharton-ish lessons about the way complications build up and may  hamper, break or ruin the potential of a life.

In the last third of the novel I began to feel that the  trajectory might be  the unbearable downward curve at speed that is The House of Mirth (also by Edith Wharton, and surely that has got to be on my list of 100 books to build a woman? Think I need to re-read it. What a great book. My husband is currently reading a book called Why Humans Like To Cry and I was thinking The House of Mirth would be a good example of that… but is ‘like’ the right word? Surely, ‘need’  might be better…) But this is not The House of Mirth, Vance is man, and that doesn’t make all the difference, but it does make a difference.

This would be a book to read perhaps alongside or following D.H. Lawrence Sons and Lovers. It would make a very good  novel for a shared reading group, because it has short chapters, is episodic and is full of serious things to talk about…especially, how selfish does a higher purpose make a person? What is selfishness and how does it sit alongside our  need for  others, for love and  social being?

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